PM fights shy of Big Tech showdown

By: Rob Corbidge, 05 May 2022

Britain's Digital Markets Unit has blazed a global trail in its thorough and unyielding analysis of the market distortion Big Tech imposes on us all. But without teeth, it cannot bite.

For the UK Government, giving real power to its Digital Markets Unit of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) seems such an obvious and urgent thing, that not to do so looks like an act of wanton ignorance. However, it seems that is the path it is choosing.

The Financial Times has reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is not minded to roll the ball on legislation which hands statutory regulatory powers to the DMU, because "Conservative governments don’t legislate their way to prosperity and growth". It's not the place of this piece to point out the many times a Conservative government has done exactly that, but we have no choice but to accept the PM's reported inclination to avoid it. 

Yet in light of the DMU's groundbreaking work in establishing how Big Tech can abuse dominant market positions, and the agility the DMU demonstrated in doing so as EU bodies floundered, it seems absurd not to invest it with the powers of enforcement where they are required. It won't have escaped our readers' attention that the EU is now forging ahead with digital market legislation.

It was anticipated in the UK that the DMU would gain the power to establish codes of conduct for tech companies, with the ability to impose fines of up to 10% of annual turnover. Currently the DMU exists in "shadow form" with around 70 staff, and no powers other than those already vested in the CMA - we'd assume those staff have been champing at the bit to begin their work proper. It seems they can champ for another year at least. Maybe some will champ off.

If we know one thing about Big Tech, it's that it will do what it wants unless specifically prevented from doing so. We're already dealing with nigh on two decades of exactly that scenario, but at least in that time we saw innovation and useful disruption. Now it looks much more like market abuse to consolidate and prevent new market entrants.

Without proper enforcement, it's hard to believe the uncertainty gap will not simply be filled with yet more unfair use of market dominance.

We would also point to another consideration which gets lost among talk of revenue streams, hidden algorithms, and clumsy moderation tools: the big tech firms which governments from around the world are most looking to sharpen their legislation for are all American - even if they profess global credentials. Most media brands, and most audiences, are not American. 

Now, I do not claim to be an authority on the possible effects of such an imbalanced scenario, but I cannot believe there is no effect - and I firmly believe the various governments (and some of the media organisations) taking aim at the likes of Google and Facebook etc do think about it.

Distinctive cultures around the globe are a good thing in general, being healthy for humanity, and Britain - where I am and where GPP is based - has always had its own distinct media culture, both appalling and amazing. 

Media in particular thrives by the movement of people and ideas. Foreign (and very often British) editors and writers moving across the Atlantic into US media is a well-worn path. But no-one could reasonably say that they could have influenced American society in any way comparable to the way, say, owning Twitter can. But, not just American society - nearly any society is now in the realm of influence.

From macro to micro; and to borrow a phrase from website development, we're also in danger of losing a data layer - that of local media, in whichever country you are in.

Media outlets serving larger audiences are mostly finding a route to navigate themselves to safety and success. It's much harder for local media. Protection and a fairer playing field is required, or else the Local Bugle may have to peddle NWO conspiracy theories in order to gain audience, rather than something truly locally important like perhaps an election, crime, or dog show.